Harry Potter’s creator faces a crowd of uber-Muggles—the graduating class of Harvard University—whom she enjoins to stretch their minds and be awesome.
Today, Rowling (The Casual Vacancy, 2012, etc.) is massively wealthy, but that wasn’t the case a quarter-century ago, when she was “as poor as it is possible to be in modern Britain without being homeless.” That condition might have been an I-told-you-so moment for the parents who worried that by pursuing a degree in classics she was setting herself up for penury. “Of all the subjects on this planet,” she writes, “I think they would have been hard put to name one less useful than Greek mythology when it came to securing the keys to an executive bathroom.” Instead, she tells her eager audience, it was a wake-up call: she had failed dramatically, and about the only place to go was up, which is, after all, the lesson one hopes to learn from failure. The classics prove steadfast companions in this brief volume. Though she’s best known for a few Latin taglines by way of magical spells, Rowling makes neat connections between the challenges of modern life and the tutelary examples of Seneca, Plutarch, and the other ancients. While she discounts the ennobling aspects of poverty and misery, it’s also clear that her education provided her with some steel to face those hardships. The author’s quiet praise of liberal education forms one theme. A second, the importance of the imagination, is perhaps the more expected one, but Rowling takes a nicely unsettling detour by recounting her time spent working for Amnesty International and witnessing how monstrous people can be. The unimaginative, she ventures, are more afraid of the world than the imaginative and in turn, “enable real monsters.”
That second matter is a point that could stand elaboration. On the strength of this sharp, inspirational piece, we hope that Rowling will add a book of essays to her CV.